What can traveling 500 miles east teach you about your western roots?
“I did everything I could to make him a cowboy.”
In one picture I was riding Stormy, one of the horses we (he) used to have. In the other, I was shooting a .22 pistol. My dad took the pictures while he and I were riding on the west side of the Oquirrh Mountains. It was one of several rides we took during my childhood.
Dad was joking when he made the cowboy comment, but it contained a lot of truth. When I was young, Magna, the small town outside of Salt Lake City where I grew up, was a very rural town. As the years passed, urban sprawl engulfed the town until it was just another suburb. As the town turned from country to city, so did I.
A Country Home
I grew up in a rambler on two acres of land. It wasn’t enough space for a big farm, but that didn’t stop my father from making it a country home. We started with one horse, then a second. Eventually there were three: Stormy, Cinnamon, and Rascal. At some point in there we raised chickens. We grew strawberries in the front yard and fruit trees dotted the back. Two barns, a chicken coop, and a homemade horse trailer completed the county portrait.
Directly to the west were a few other fields full of farm animals. Although they weren’t ours, I was no stranger to cows, sheep, or even peacocks. It wasn’t rare to see rabbits hopping across the back field.
Playing in the backyard at my house meant dirt clod fights, rotten peach fights, and swinging on the bar that ran the width of the horse trailer my grandpa made. My friends and I even stupidly played with the electric fence. At night, after the irrigation came through, Dad would take us out to the field with a flashlight to catch night-crawlers for fishing.
A Cowboy in the Making
Dad bought the first horse to help drag elk and deer carcasses out of the woods on his hunting trips. I suspect he bred the second horse so I could be his riding partner. As I got strong enough, I learned different aspects of caring for the horses.
It began by sitting in front of the saddle while my dad rode. As he rode I would hold on to the “feathers”— that’s what I called the horse’s mane. While sitting there I learned the names for all of the parts of the riding tack. As I got a little bigger I started sitting behind the saddle as my dad rode. I held on by putting two fingers from each hand through the belt loops of his blue jeans.
It was about that time that he started having me help with brushing the horses before saddling them up and after the ride was over.
I began riding by myself before my legs were long enough to reach the stirrups. Dad would lift me into the saddle and secure my feet in the loops made by the leather straps that held the stirrups. At first he would lead the horse around while I was in the saddle. Eventually, I unwrapped the reins from the saddle horn, Dad unlatched the lead-rope from the bridle, and I was riding on my own.
When I got strong enough and tall enough, Dad taught me how to saddle the horses. I remember pulling a saddle out of the old camp trailer where they were kept, throwing it on the horse, pulling myself up on the saddle, and heading to the wide open back acre.
I would get Stormy running with a couple of strikes on her rear end from the long leather reins. I stood in the stirrups as she got up to a full run. The biggest rush came when she would take flight to clear the irrigation ditch that cut through the pasture with about one-third of an acre before the fence. The placement of the ditch left you just enough room to slow the horse down and get her turned around. Then she would trot back up the other side of the field dodging the Russian olive trees.
That time period didn’t last long—maybe only one summer. Taking care of the horses began to feel like more hassle than it was worth to a kid who was starting to develop interests of his own.
Hay is for Horses
One night in the middle of the winter, my dad woke me up to ask if I had fed the horses that day. Of course, he was only asking because he knew I had forgotten.
With snow blowing directly into my face, I trudged through the drifts of the back field. I pulled the tarp off the haystack. Luckily, I didn’t have to cut open a new bail. I didn’t think to bring the wire cutters. I grabbed the pitchfork, stuck into the open bail, and peeled off a large leaf of hay. Carrying the load at the end of the pitchfork, I pushed through the snow for ten more feet. I reached the hay up and dropped it into the manger mounted to the side of the barn about six feet above the ground. As the hay dropped from the pitchfork, small particles blew back into my eyes and hair. The prickly particles of hay were the last straw.
Groggy and cold I went back to the house. Some particles of hay had found their way under my clothes. They irritated my skin all night. I didn’t get much sleep. The next morning, I strongly complained to my parents about my experience from the previous night.
A Missed Connection
Not long after that Dad traded hunting for fishing and got rid of the horses. He took the money from the sale of the horses and bought a boat. The boat era comes with its own set of stories, but I’ll save those for another time.
Recently, I drove 500 miles east to Torrington, Wyoming, to work at a goat show. The hard work of caring for farm animals reminded me of the days from my youth that I spent as a cowboy. I still think about the work. I still think about the animals. I still think about the rides.
Reliving those memories with the perspective I have now, I realize how much I’m still learning from those experiences. I realize that, not only was my dad trying to share his interests with me, he was investing a lot of money into doing so. Those times were never really about the horses. They were about connecting with my father. I was just too young and too close to it to see.
Dad had plenty of reasons to get rid of the horses. He almost never went hunting anymore. I’m sure that was partly because I had little interest in it. Also, sitting in the saddle made his back ache so he didn’t enjoy the rides as much as he did when he was younger. But the biggest reason might have been that his little riding partner, the guy he was counting on to help care for the animals, turned out to be a whiney little boy.
As life went on Dad and I found other ways to connect, other interests to share, and a mutual respect. I wish I hadn’t been so ignorant of him sharing his life with me in those early days. Now, I’m just grateful that was the beginning of our story, not the end.
Thanks for reading.